The Wind on Plains
“Did I get the coffee right this mornin or did I burn it agin?”
“Yup,” replied the man. He used the last bit of his toast to clean the broken yolk up from around the edges of the plate and took another drink of his coffee.
“Well, which is it?”
“If you want, I can go out and pick up one of them newer machines. They got them that can be preset to a specific brew.”
“You was sayin how sometimes I let the pot sit too long before pouring you a cup and I was just seein if I’d left it on too long agin.” Her hands worked daintily at the knot around her robe. The knot was pushed up around her middle where her leg crossed over the other. She recrossed her legs and the knot was then easier to get at.
“Was it Ralph that called? I heard the phone ring from in the shower. Probably called about the shed.”
She looked up towards the counter where sat the pad of paper that was for telephone messages. She got up carefully, but moved instead to the sink where she began to clean his plate.
“Said that the shed was unlocked and to remember to take the spare can out with you. Said you knew where the tie-downs where at.”
“That’s all he said, yeah.”
“What’ll you be doin today?” The man tipped his mug back slowly and swirled the remaining coffee around in the bottom of the mug. Finally his wife answered.
“Probably just this.”
The man finished his coffee and left in the truck.
“An awful lot of work is being done by your boys up there in Montana.”
“Well, you’ve got a nice parcel of land out here.”
“A parcel, Pete, denotes a small portion of something. And your boys aint working like they’s working for a parcel.”
He spat brown and stringy into the gravel of the driveway. He hitched himself over onto his left heel and looked over at Pete. Both men stood facing the way Pete had just come up the drive.
“Go ahead and light that smoke, Pete. Don’t need permission from me.”
Pete brought the cigarette up to his lips from his hip where he had been holding it, rolling it back and forth between his thumb and forefinger so that some of the tobacco had fallen out the sides. He watched as the flame from his match ate through the empty cigarette paper. The tobacco took and he filled himself, stretching up onto his toes. He put the match into his pocket. He kept his hand there, his thumb picking at the wooden end of the spent match. He looked straight ahead.
“We’ve been gettin a lot of calls from your people.”
“You’ve got a good piece of land here, Mr. Robert.”
“For a little bit of bentonite, it seems like a lot of work.”
“It’s clean bentonite.”
“Or there’s more there than either of us originally anticipated.”
Robert was facing Pete now, far back on his heels with his hands resting casually around a silver belt buckle. He spat again without changing his position and Pete could see black strands of saliva and tobacco hang in his beard.
“I go out sir, like I done a number of times before on that four-wheeler there, and I scout the land for suitable places to mine. I look for snakes and noxious weeds, Mr. Robert. And that’s what I know; snakes and noxious weeds.”
“Boy, the things I could say.”
Pete stubbed the cigarette out on the heel of his boot and put the spent butt into the pocket with the match. The muscles of his cheek and jaw clenched and unclenched, and then clenched again.
“I’ve known you since you were a boy. Knew your parents, both before and after they got married, and I know that you was raised in love. Your old man took your mama out dancin every week, didn’t he?”
A turkey vulture danced and bobbed along the blacktop of the highway, looking left and then right, just beyond the turn of the driveway. Pete chewed the inside of his cheek.
“Every Saturday at the Monarch,” Pete finally answered.
“Every damn week.” Robert spat again into the gravel. A cloud of dust rose and hung above the bits of rock. The sun was beginning its climb across the horizon, and the air was still and thin.
“I see you’ve unpacked already. That’s fine. Just need you to move your truck over there by the shed. Watch that the trailer don’t stick out none. I won’t be here when you’re done, but Bobby will be. And Bobby’s got the same questions as I got, so I suggest you find some answers out there today.”
Gravel crunched beneath the heel and toe of Robert’s boots. Dust rose and clung to his pant cuffs. Pete was crouched low on his heels, his elbows resting on the insides of his thighs. He brushed dust off of a rock with his thumb and turned it over and over again in his palm. The footfalls of the boots stopped suddenly and Pete looked up at Robert’s back.
“There’s still dancin every Saturday night at the Monarch. Like when your daddy took your ma. I remember your wife bein something of a dancer when you were courtin her. Would dance even without music.”
Pete let the rock fall from his fingers. The wind was beginning to pick up with the advance of morning.
“What was that, boy?” He spat again into the gravel.
“I didn’t say nothin, Mr. Robert.”
“It would be nice to see you both again. Both of you out dancin. And I know that I speak for more than just myself when I say that.”
The screen door slammed into its jamb as Pete stood, the wind kicking up bits of dirt and even more dust, and Pete had to grab ahold of the back of his hat to keep it from coming off in the wind. The turkey vulture was no longer there on the highway.
He could hear the squeak of the bicycle’s seat as the girl came pedaling up the road towards where he sat eating his lunch in the shade of the ATV. He looked down at his lap where his fingers worked the tobacco methodically back and forth in the cradle of the paper. Strands of tobacco fell into his lap and he brushed them off before licking the glue of the paper and twisting the cigarette into his mouth. The girl was just cresting a small hill in the road, her arms working to maintain control of the large bicycle as it made its way in and out of the ruts. His eyes darted across the horizon to his truck, small with the distance. The sun off of the bicycle caught red and sudden in his eyes and reluctantly he looked at the girl as she slowed to a stop just beyond the front of the ATV. The man stood up slowly.
She sat atop the bicycle seat precariously, her legs splayed wildly out to steady herself in the dirt and the scrub grass of the ditch where they stood.
“You roll your own cigarettes?”
“It’s more economical. And I smoke less.”
She squinted up at him through the glare of the sun. The tiny hairs on her arm shone like stars and the man could see goosebumps where the wind played gently upon her skin.
“I brought you your extra can of gasoline. I saw that you’d left it and thought that if you’d brought it, you’d probably need it.” She paused expectantly. The man ashed his cigarette with a twitch of his forefinger.
“And it’s such a pretty day that I rode it out here to you.” She remained atop the bicycle, wavering a bit to one side as she flexed her knees slightly.
“I haven’t yet explored the land. I’m a newlywed.” And with this she looked the man full in the face, pride in her smile. The man looked at her briefly and smiled before looking back out again beyond her right shoulder.
“Congratulations,” he said.
“Are you married?” She asked.
The man stood up straight from where he had been leaning against the ATV and cocked his head left, squinting at the girl.
“Where you from?”
“Originally from Yellowstone County. Was raised there. Me and my husband, he’s whose daddy owns this land, came out here a few weeks back. Bobby came out to help with the sale of the property and whatnot. I haven’t been able to get out much into town. Bobby takes the truck to the plant to talk with your people most of the week, and his daddy’s been widowed for close to fifteen years now so I’m kept busy doin housework and the like.”
Her face was rosy from the slight chill of the wind. She smiled an unassuming smile. Her hair was long and unruly, with bangs that framed her round face. At some point she had done something to chip the corner of her front tooth.
“What’s your name?”
“Rachel. And yours?”
They meet to shake hands over the ditch. She stumbled slightly with the bulk of the bicycle frame. He watched as she scooted the bike back up the ditch. He could see slightly down the front of her shirt. He looked at his wristwatch.
“Let me untie that gas can from off the back of your bike there and it’d be a whole lot easier to control.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
She looked at him sideways through her hair as he bent to the knots.
He was running an end of rope through itself while smoke from his cigarette curled lazily into his eyes.
“Do you and your wife ever go and eat at the Monarch?”
“Do you and-”
“We used to go there every so often before we were married, but not so much anymore.” He shook the can free from the loosened rope and hauled it back to his lunch next to the ATV.
“Bobby takes me out on the prime rib night. And his pa comes with, too. Seems like the whole town is there then. I’ve never seen you there.”
“We don’t go there that much anymore.”
“Well, I’ve never seen you there at all. And everybody goes there on prime rib night.”
“My wife don’t like prime rib.”
“Everybody likes prime rib.”
“My wife don’t.”
They looked at each other for a minute. And then the girl looked away. The man looked down.
“I better start headin back to the house.”
“But it was nice meetin you.”
She looked at him briefly and gave him a tight smile.
The girl had already pedaled a bit up the road before she turned back to look at him.
“You don’t talk much.”
“I’m a quiet guy.”
“Yeah, but even when you do talk you don’t say much.”
“So then I don’t say much.”
“I just thought you was lonely out here eatin your lunch and thought I would keep you company. That’s all.” And with that she turned back towards the house, leaning forward in her sandaled feet in the pedals, her shoulders hunched together, the bicycle squeaking with age.
The man was not alone as he entered through the backdoor into the kitchen, coughing and stamping the mud from off of his boots. His father-in-law looked up briefly from a cup of coffee. A soft pack of Camel cigarettes sat beside the coffee mug.
“Have a seat.”
“Did your daughter let you in?” The man took out his pouch of tobacco from his jacket before hanging it on a peg.
“Have a seat.”
The man took his place across from his father-in-law at the table.
“What can I do for you, Rick?”
“It’s not for me that I’m here, Pete.” He stubbed out the cigarette he had been smoking into an upturned Mason jar lid and went for another from the pack.
“Smoke?” He asked, nudging the pack in the direction of Pete with his forefinger.
“Thanks, but I’ve got my own.”
The strike of the match was loud in the kitchen. Tobacco spilled out the sides of Pete’s working fingers and onto the floor. He could hear Rick inhale the match’s flame as it caught the tobacco. Rick sat holding the match out to Pete across the table and more tobacco spilled out from the open end as Pete leaned forward to light his own. The two men sat and smoked. Rick took a drink from his mug. Pete ashed his cigarette and then so did Rick.
“What can I do for you, Rick?”
“She’s left and I came here to tell you that you will never be seein her again. She’s left you.” All of the air that Rick had been holding was let out in the rush of words, and smoke streamed from his nostrils. Pete recrossed his legs and picked up his cigarette from the Mason jar lid.
“She’s done with you Pete, and I want you to understand all of the implications of her leaving. For I need you to know that Carolyn is free of you now and forever.”
“Where is she, Rick?”
“She left this mornin on the bus for Helena. She’s with her sister.” The coffee mug joggled slightly against the tabletop before Rick could set it down. He was looking at Pete.
“You don’t even care enough to go out there and get her, do you? You wanted to know just to know.” Pete’s hands were white beneath the light of the kitchen and he bit the side of his cheek again and again.
“You know we all knew, didn’t you? You have to have known. The sheriff comin down here, night after night, and you don’t think that word would have gotten around? Shit boy, and you don’t even drink.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about Rick.”
Pete looked up at Rick for the first time since sitting down and saw the lines around Rick’s mouth and around his eyes. His short cropped hair was gray and thin. His eyes were clear and hard and looked out at him from depressed sockets. Pete looked back down. He bent to brush dirt off from the cuff of his pants and noticed that Rick had not taken off his jacket. Something in the faded windbreaker pocket hung low and heavy.
Pete rose tall in his seat and began to roll another cigarette. Rick had already lit another.
“Three years, Pete. For three years we begged her to leave and for three years she told us that you’d get better. You didn’t even try to hide it, you bastard!” Rick brought both his fists down upon the tabletop, his cigarette quivering between his teeth, and whatever was in the windbreaker pocket banged metallic against the chair. Pete moved his toes back and forth inside his boots. He took his arms off the table. His cigarette was between his teeth and loose tobacco stung his tongue.
“It aint hard to figure out when you see your baby wearin sweaters in the summer. Wearing jeans in the summer. And she told me that you would change. And begged me to calm down. Begged the whole town to calm down.” He was shaking. And so was Pete. The air around them was acrid and heavy with smoke. Rick adjusted in his seat, his jacket pocket swung against his leg. He laid it in his lap.
“Look at me.”
Pete looked up and met Rick’s eyes.
Pete looked back down at his hands clasping his belt buckle. His Leatherman rubbed against his wrist. He noticed a small cut between his first two knuckles of his right hand. He felt that he was breathing quickly and attempted to control his fluttering chest.
“Look at me.”
Pete looked up at Rick’s mouth.
Rick spat into Pete’s face with a sound like a bullwhip separating the atmosphere of the kitchen and Pete caught and held his breath. Rick remained poised, his hand in his lap, a bit of spittle shining in the light on his bottom lip. Pete took in a shallow breath. The lines of Rick’s face were deeper and more pronounced than when Pete had first noticed them. The globule of spit ran slowly down the bridge of his nose and his eye and into his lips and cheek, and still he sat there and looked across at Rick shaking, his toes moving continuously back and forth inside his boots.
“Go and clean yourself up.”
Rick reached over and grabbed another cigarette from the dwindling pack.
Pete rose from his seat and turned toward the sink, the spit running down his chin and onto the kitchen floor. He splashed cold water from the faucet onto his face over and over again. When he turned the faucet off he remained standing at the sink looking out the window, the water running in rivulets through his sparse beard. The sky was a steel gray and hung low in the sky. The clouds appeared as wool that stretched from horizon to horizon. Wheatgrass waved in the yard, and also in the yard beyond. There were pronghorn out beyond the property line grazing. Magpies flitted along the fence that ran beside the highway.
Pete looked out again towards the pronghorn and to Rick’s truck, and saw for the first time that another truck was parked just behind Rick’s. Three men lounged against its front fender; two were smoking while one was picking at a strand of grass. They all three were looking towards the house.
From the sink Pete spoke; “You don’t have to do this, Rick.”
“Three years, Pete.”
“You don’t have to do this. She’s left and I will never see her again.” Pete spoke quickly, his right hand steadying himself against the formica countertop.
“Carolyn has left and I will never see her again. You don’t have to do this.” The man whispered this last part.
“You’re becoming repetitious,” said Rick.
“This whole conversation has been repetitious,” said Pete.
“I suppose you’ve got a point there.”
“You don’t have to-”
“Did you know that she painted?”
“I knew that she liked to paint, yeah.”
“Did you know that she painted landscapes? One of them is even hanging in the Monarch. Did you know that?”
“I suppose not in the way you’re askin, no.”
“I didn’t think so.”
Pete finally turned from the sink and sat back down at the table across from Rick. Water still dripped from his chin and onto the crotch of his jeans. Rick had zipped his windbreaker up tight against his throat and stubbed out his cigarette into the overflowing Mason jar lid. His hand was in his pocket.
“Do I have time for one more cigarette?”
Rick stood up slowly, the chair sliding loudly across the floor, and shook his head. Pete looked at the floor, and then at the stovetop digital clock. And then up at the clock that Carolyn herself had hung. It was ornate; a sun done up all in rustic metal that she had won at bingo. She had hung it while he was at work, and when he had come in that night he had noticed the clock. And Carolyn had smiled at that.
Pete got up and led Rick out. The wind swept down from the mountains beyond and the water was cold in his beard. Rick hugged his arms tighter against his body and together they walked single file towards the trucks.